Legislation includes enhancements supported by Prince William Sound RCAC
Monday, the day after the 30th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, Sen. Dan Sullivan introduced in the United States Senate legislation entitled the “Spill Response and Prevention Surety Act.” This bill would reinstitute the financing rate for the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund, establish a floor and ceiling for the Fund so as to ensure availability of funding resources to help respond to oil spills in all 50 States, provide for prevention funding grants and make other improvements to the Fund.
A delegation of Board members and staff from the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council is currently in Washington, DC and provided a preliminary response to Sen. Sullivan on this very encouraging development. The trip is an annual visit for meetings on Capitol Hill, with the U.S. Coast Guard, with federal agencies that comprise the Interagency Coordinating Committee on Oil Pollution Research, the State of Alaska, and the Alyeska Pipeline Service Company.
As a citizens’ organization authorized by statute after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the Council had previously expressed to Sen. Dan Sullivan, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Rep. Don Young and other members of the House and Senate strong support for congressional authorization for certain important and needed improvements to the Fund. It was therefore very encouraging for Council representatives to see this bill introduced in the Senate. While visiting Sen. Sullivan at the Capitol yesterday, the Council expressed their appreciation for his work on this bill.
Council representatives are hopeful that the bill will be considered soon in the Senate and House, supported strongly across the nation, acted upon and enacted during this session of the 116th Congress. Council representatives in Washington intend to ensure the full membership of the Council, spanning the entire Exxon Valdez oil spill region, will be briefed on the bill once they return to Alaska later this week. The Council will then be able to provide Congress the organization’s views regarding any potential further recommended improvements to the bill as introduced for consideration.
The financing rate expired at the end of December 2018. It is therefore important that action be taken soon to reauthorize the financing rate and to make the other needed improvements to the Fund for the protection of navigable waters in every state, fish and wildlife and their habitats, local, state and regional economies and for the environment.
The Council delegation meeting with congressional leaders in Washington this week included Amanda Bauer, president, representing the City of Valdez; Rebecca Skinner, Board member, representing the Kodiak Island Borough; Robert Archibald, Board member, representing the City of Homer; Mako Haggerty, Board member representing the Kenai Peninsula Borough; Donna Schantz, executive director; and Joe Lally, director of programs.
For more information, contact Brooke Taylor at 907-277-7222.
In February, the Council reached an agreement with Alyeska that will improve knowledge about weather conditions in Port Valdez. Alyeska has agreed to allow a buoy to be installed in front of the Valdez Marine Terminal to measure winds and surface currents. A second buoy will collect data from a nearby salt marsh.
Agreement reached on appeal to amendment of spill contingency plan
The agreement is the outcome of an appeal to a 2017 amendment to the oil spill contingency plan for the terminal.
In that 2017 amendment, Alyeska replaced a tool used by responders in deciding whether to protect the salt marsh known as the Valdez Duck Flats, and the Solomon Gulch Fish Hatchery in case of a spill from the terminal. The Council, the City of Valdez, the Valdez Fisheries Development Association, and the Prince William Sound Aquaculture Corporation appealed the 2017 change. They were concerned the new tool would not adequately protect these two environmentally sensitive areas.
Eastern Lion spill in 1994 taught lesson in protecting sensitive areas
After that spill, federal and state agencies, the industry, and the Council participated in a facilitated, collaborative process to develop a tool that would protect the hatchery and salt marsh. The result, a decision matrix, was implemented in 1997 to ensure that protective boom is deployed before oil could reach these sensitive areas.
New workgroup to find a resolution
In exchange for dismissing the appeal, all parties will participate in a facilitated collaborative workgroup to reach consensus on how to ensure protection of the Duck Flats and hatchery. The 1997 matrix will remain in place until the workgroup concludes.
“The Council has long advocated that robust weather monitoring systems be placed at the Valdez Marine Terminal,” said Donna Schantz, executive director for the Council. “We are required by the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 to study wind and water currents and other environmental factors in the vicinity of the terminal facilities, to determine how they might affect the ability to prevent, respond to, contain, and clean up an oil spill. These weather buoys will help us better achieve that goal.”
Donation and grant will help support data collection
To support these efforts, the Council has received a donation of two weather buoys from Fairweather Scientific, a subsidiary of Edison Chouest Offshore.
The first buoy, placed near the terminal, will be supported by the Council. A grant from the City of Valdez will support operating and maintenance costs of a second buoy, placed near the Duck Flats. It is anticipated that both buoys will be in operation for at least the next five years.
The wind and waves on the southern side of Port Valdez can be remarkably different than those recorded at the official weather stations located onshore in Valdez.
“Weather is a significant factor in the management of safe crude oil transportation through Prince William Sound,” added Schantz. “Marine safety, tanker escort operations, oil spill response planning, containment boom tactics, and oil tanker movements are all affected by weather. We are pleased by the support received to help us collect important scientific data to help prevent oil spills and improve response efforts should prevention measures fail.”
The buoys are expected to be in place this spring. Data from the buoys will be available online once they are in place and operating.
Photo: The Valdez Duck Flats is designated as a “environmentally sensitive area” in spill contingency planning.
How has oil transportation changed in Prince William Sound since 1989?
The immediate cause of 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill was a navigational error on the part of the tanker’s captain and crew. However, Congress found that complacency among the oil industry and the regulatory agencies responsible for monitoring the operation of the Valdez terminal and vessel traffic in Prince William Sound was also a contributing factor in the disaster.
Few prevention measures were in place and cleanup resources were inadequate.
Since 1989, regulatory agencies, the industry, and citizens have been working together on improved methods to prevent oil spills and how to be better prepared to clean up if another spill should occur.
Laws and Regulations
One of the most important results of the oil spill was the enactment of the federal Oil Pollution Act of 1990, or “OPA 90,” which addressed many deficiencies, including liability, compensation, and oversight. The law required two citizens’ oversight councils, one for Prince William Sound and one for Cook Inlet.
Both federal and state laws now require more comprehensive prevention measures and planning for larger spills and require more spill response equipment to be immediately available.
What has improved in oil spill prevention since the Exxon Valdez oil spill?
All tankers transporting oil through Prince William Sound are now double-hulled. Double hulls, basically two steel skins separated by several feet of space, are an effective design feature which can reduce or eliminate spills that result from groundings or collisions.
Alyeska’s Ship Escort/Response Vessel System
The Ship Escort/Response Vessel System, known as SERVS, was developed after the Exxon Valdez spill. SERVS’ mission is to prevent oil spills by escorting tankers to ensure they navigate safely through Prince William Sound, provide assistance in order to avoid an accident should the tanker experience an engine failure or other malfunction, and to begin immediate response if there is a spill. SERVS maintains a fleet of large escort tugs, keeps trained response crews on duty around the clock, and has spill response equipment ready to respond.
Improved tanker escorts
The system’s powerful tugs escort all loaded tankers from the terminal at Valdez, through Prince William Sound and Hinchinbrook Entrance, and out into the Gulf of Alaska. Two tugs accompany each laden tanker out of Prince William Sound, with one tug tethered to the tanker until it reaches Central Sound where there is more room to maneuver. One tug will stand by at the Entrance to the Sound until the tanker is 17miles out into the Gulf of Alaska.
Risks from human error
All tanker captains, and any crew member suspected of consuming alcohol, are now subject to alcohol tests before sailing. Crews now receive more training and work hours are limited to reduce accidents caused by fatigue.
Monitoring marine traffic
The Coast Guard now monitors the speed and heading of all tankers and other vessels in Prince William Sound through improved radar and the Automatic Identification System. Vessels equipped with this system transmit real-time information about their locations and movements that is made available to the Coast Guard’s Vessel Traffic System offices in Valdez, as well as Council offices, and others.
What has improved in oil spill response since the Exxon Valdez oil spill?
While prevention measures are the best way to avoid environmental damage from oil spills, even the best system cannot remove all risks. Oil spill response in Prince William Sound has seen many improvements since 1989. Alyeska’s SERVS is now considered one of the best oil spill prevention and response forces in the world.
Contingency plans, extensive documents which contain details on preventing and cleaning up oil spills, are required by state and federal law. The requirements in these plans have expanded since 1989 and now must demonstrate that larger spills can be contained and cleaned up with more spill response equipment and trained crews that are immediately available.
Some changes in the contingency plans since 1989 include:
Local fishing vessels are an integral part of the response plans. The crews, located in the ports of Valdez, Cordova, Whittier, Homer, Seward, and Kodiak, are contracted by Alyeska to respond in the event of a spill, and trained every year in spill cleanup methods.
More emphasis on shoreline protection and wildlife protection.
Special strategies have been developed to protect specific areas that have been identified as a sensitive area or a critical resource, such as salmon streams or hatcheries.
Spill response equipment
In 1989, there were only 13 oil-skimming systems in Alyeska’s response inventory; today, 100 units are available. Only 5 miles of oil spill boom were available in 1989; today, over 50 miles of various types of boom are available. Alyeska had only about 220,000 gallons of storage capacity for recovered oil and oily water immediately after the Exxon Valdez spill; today, on-water storage capacity is now over 34 million gallons.
Before 1989, few oil spill drills were conducted in Prince William Sound. Today, three major exercises take place per year, along with several smaller drills. The drills provide opportunities for response personnel to work with equipment and practice procedures.
Improvements at the terminal
For the first twenty years of operations at the terminal, thousands of tons of toxic vapors were emitted annually during the tanker loading process. These harmful vapors threatened the health of the terminal’s workers and Valdez residents. In 1997, Alyeska installed vapor controls at two loading berths, which nearly eliminated the pollution from loading operations.
The Ballast Water Treatment Facility, designed to clean oily residue from tanker ballast water before it is released back into the environment, has also seen improvements. A system has been installed to reduce the vapors released into the environment from the facility. Over the years, emissions from the Ballast Water Treatment Facility have been reduced.
Although there have been many improvements, there are still many areas of concern, meriting the continued attention and sustained efforts from the Council. A few of these include:
Complacency: Rollbacks or weakening of state and federal environmental protections.
Heavy weather operations: The safety of escort tug crews and their ability to respond during strong winds and waves has been questioned due to lack of training in all conditions in which the tugs are expected to operate.
Response gap: Studies by the Council have shown that it is not possible to effectively clean up an oil spill during the strong winds and waves in which tankers are allowed to transport oil.
Aging infrastructure: The terminal is over 40 years old and was originally designed for 30 years of service.
A series of drills and exercises, including one large no-notice drill, helped assess the new system in Prince William Sound.
Throughout the past year, Alyeska conducted a series of exercises designed to meet requirements from the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation and train the crews aboard Edison Chouest Offshore’s new vessels. Some exercises were conducted during windy conditions and others during darkness.
In June, the department approved major amendments to the oil spill contingency plans for the Valdez Marine Terminal and the tankers that transport oil through Prince William Sound. These amendments stemmed from the change of spill prevention and response contractors to Edison Chouest Offshore, who took over from Crowley Maritime last July. The approval came with conditions, which required specific exercises and training for the new equipment and personnel.
The department required each of the five escort tugs, the four general purpose tugs, and the Ross Chouest utility tug to conduct exercises with oil spill response barges. In addition, the department specified that some of these exercises had to occur in winds of at least 20 knots (23 miles per hour) and in darkness.
Some exercises tested the tugs’ spill prevention capabilities. Each of the five escort tugs stopped a laden tanker traveling at 10 knots (over 11 miles per hour) and at 6 knots (almost 7 miles per hour). All tugs demonstrated their abilities to stop and tow a stricken tanker.
Many of these exercises were completed during the summer prior to July 1, when Edison Chouest officially took over the contract, but some of the darkness and heavier weather events took place after the transition.
Alyeska was given until December 31, 2018 to complete these exercises, however they were completed earlier. All vessels met the department’s standards.
With these new assets approved, the current version of the tanker plan will be in place through February 2022. The terminal’s plan is up for renewal later this year.
Annual fall shippers’ drill
Crowley Alaska Tankers hosted a large-scale table-top exercise in October.
For this annual drill, the role of the “spiller” alternates among the shipping companies that move oil through Prince William Sound. Crowley Alaska Tankers’ new role in the Prince William Sound system means they join the rotation. (Approximately 200?) Two hundred people participated in this drill.
This year, the scenario involved a tanker colliding with an out of control vessel causing an instantaneous release of 140,000 barrels, or almost 6 million gallons, of crude oil into central Prince William Sound. Simulated weather moved the spill towards the village of Tatitlek; a trajectory typically not usually played in these sorts of large exercises.
One of the exercise highlights was the Regional Stakeholders Committee. This committee is an avenue for stakeholders to offer their support, resources, and expertise, as well as to express their concerns, to the response leaders in the event of a spill. Representatives from the City of Valdez, the City of Whittier, and the Council participated during this drill.
No-notice drill included equipment deployments
In November, the department surprised Alyeska with a larger-scale unannounced drill. This was the first unannounced drill in recent memory to be held at night.
The call came at 5:57 p.m. on November 6. The scenario was that the crew of a tug smelled spilled oil while escorting a loaded tanker through the Sound. The department asked Alyeska to deploy two open water task forces, each of which included an oil spill response barge and associated equipment. Five fishing vessels under contract with Alyeska for spill response participated in the drill.
Council staff were on hand for the exercise, and observers were pleased that the drill included several challenges that added realism, including:
The drill was planned to last 18 hours to simulate the long hours of a real event.
Crews were asked to don protective gear which would be needed in the event of an actual spill. Previous drills had not required as much gear. Council observers noted several issues, including the challenge of communicating while wearing a respirator and that not all personnel wore the protective equipment.
A buoy was set adrift for responders to simulate tracking an actual oil slick.
There are just a few highlights of the drills and exercises observed by the Council every year. Additional details are available in our annual drill monitoring report, available online: Preparedness Monitoring